Finding poetry in the game
Get caught looking at ‘Caught Looking’, an anthology of poems about baseball and life by local author Sean Carroll
R ight off the bat, Sean Carroll hits a home run when he rhymes “wipe the shine right off the moon” with “creature from the black lagoon” in the lead off poem in his baseball-themed poetry chapbook “Caught Looking.”
Carroll divides the book’s 20 poems into the seasons of baseball and life — Spring, Summer and Fall. In the lead off poem with the “moon” – “lagoon” rhyme, Carroll writes of a young boy reluctant to wake up because he is playing baseball in his dreams. In the poem, “Wiffleball on Jackson Street,” he writes about a young boy watching older boys playing wiffleball who laments, “You stay long enough/ Stick your jelly-stained fingers/Though the cold chain link/Give it a shake? Maybe, just maybe they’ll let you in.”
Youth and lost youth are recurring themes. The final poem ends the Fall season as a grown up Carroll comes to grips with his growing children and his own advancing age in “The Backyard Boys.”
In between in the summer he has fun with a tribute to Robert Frost in “Birches Revisited” and with a George Plimpton observation.
“George Plimpton wrote this cool magazine piece years ago,” Carroll said, “about what he called The Smaller Theory: The smaller the ball, the better the quality of the writing about that sport. So I wrote a sort of mock epic poem about a funny debate between a golf ball and a baseball.”
Though all the poems are baseball-themed, they also take on larger themes. Some are light while others explore the darker side of life. As John Zedolik — published poet and adjunct professor at Chatham University in Pittsburgh — writes in a cover blurb, “If the grown-up game is your thing take in the rumination on family problems in “I almost Burned My Whole Life Down.”
Growing up in Mountain Top, Carroll played Little League ball, but chose track over baseball at Crestwood High School, winning a District 2 medal in the 110 hurdles. He got his baseball fix as the starting centerfielder for the Mountain Top American Legion team, beating out the high school’s starter for the job.
‘There’s an old adage about writing: dig below the surface. Good writing has to be truthful whether the truth is painful or not.’ Sean Carroll Author
Carroll always liked to write. In elementary school, he wrote detective stories. In high school, he wrote poems and entered poetry and essay contests. “If asked in 9th 10th grade, I would have said I want to be a writer.”
But life intervened. He graduated from Crestwood in 1984 and went to Penn State as an English major and made it through two cuts as a walk-on to the baseball team. But, he said, “He majored in beer and darts.”
He left Penn State and got a job as an aide at the General Hospital psychiatric unit where he met a nurse named Camille. They married in 1991 and moved to West Pittston. Carroll went back to school, finishing his undergraduate degree at Bloomsburg and master’s at Scranton University. Today, he is a psychiatric rehabilitation counselor and an adjunct English instructor in the Misericordia University Expressway Program — and a writer.
He and Camille had three children, sons Matt and Kevin and a daughter Kelly. Being a father to three and working full time, he wrote sparingly and didn’t complete anything. As he put it, “I was the king of starting a 100 writing projects and not finishing them.”
As sons grew up, baseball consumed his time. “The kids were so involved in baseball. They were in multiple leagues. I was coaching way too many teams. Between working and teaching at Misericordia and coaching Little League and at Wyoming Area, I didn’t have time to sleep. I was never home. I got away from writing.”
But as he approached his 50th birthday last November — and with his older son on his own, the younger one at Hofstra where he is the sports editor of the school paper and his daughter Kelly a senior at Wyoming Area — he decided if he was to get back into writing it was now or never.
A childhood memory helped rekindle Carroll’s passion for writing. In the memory, he is five or six years old and he “went snooping around my father’s desk and came across reams of yellow legal sheets.”
The sheets were covered with numbers, notations and names. Turns out Carroll had stumbled on the box scores of a dice baseball game his father, a rabid Yankee fan, had played.
The memory inspired him to write a short story “Uncle Marty’s Stupid Game.” He submitted it to Spitball, a baseball literary magazine and it was accepted and published. Carroll describes it as “a story of a young kid who ends up bonding with a great uncle over dice baseball game pitting the rookies of 1964 against all-time greats.”
When Spitball accepted his poem “Baselines” he felt he was on to something. He wrote more poems with a chapbook in mind. It wasn’t easy. He spent a year writing and revising the 20 poems.
“I had written an earlier version of the first poem in the book ‘In Dreams’ and it was just ok.” Carroll said. “Then I had an epiphany. There’s an old adage about writing: dig below the surface. Good writing has to be truthful whether the truth is painful or not.
“I had to ask myself, am I really working hard at this or am I treating it as a hobby. I had to admit to myself I was treating it as a hobby. If I came away saying that’s a ‘nice’ poem then I haven’t done what I should be doing.”
Once he was satisfied, he sent the chapbook to some small presses and swung and missed a few times. “I got nice rejection letters.” Then he sent it to WordTech Editions and got a hit. “Yeah, I think they kind of saw that while it is baseball-themed, it’s more than that.”
His mother, with whom he admits he had a “difficult relationship,” died before he got the manuscript finalized. “My mother passed away at the beginning of July and so did not get to see the finished product. Because I was aiming for fidelity to the truth, there are some instances in the book that may not have cast my mother in the most flattering light. But in a sense, I do consider the work as a whole very much a testament to her immense positive influence on me as well. She was a huge fan of the written word and art and drama in general. She gave that all to me.”
“Backyard boys,” the closing poem, is one of his favorites. “It’s kind of bittersweet. It stirs me and it was hard to write.”
In it, he sits on his back porch from where he used to watch his sons and their friends play ball. It ends this way: “I should go inside but I think I’ll sit here another hour For I know the night is waiting for me Long and slow and deep The night is waiting for me It will draw me close and whisper Your backyard boys are gone.”
Author Sean Carroll, with his new book, ‘Caught Looking,’ in his West Pittston residence.